Radiculopathy: More Than a Pain in the Neck

Neck pain is a common problem, especially for adults. In fact, an estimated 15% of American adults experience at least one full day of neck pain over a three-month period. But just because it’s common doesn’t mean all neck pain is equal, especially when it involves nerves.

If you have neck pain, Dr. Arien Smith at the Brain and Spine Institute of New York and New Jersey can help. As a fellowship-trained and board-certified neurosurgeon, Dr. Smith specializes in treating spinal disorders, including a specific form of neck pain known as radiculopathy.

More than neck pain

Your neck is the highest part of your spine, starting at the base of your skull. This delicate structure contains seven vertebrae — or bones — that protect your spinal cord. It also has soft tissues — muscles, ligaments, and tendons — that stabilize and move the area. 

In many cases, neck pain develops from overuse or overextending this soft tissue, resulting in strains or sprains. These types of injuries often resolve within a few days or weeks with self-care at home, like resting, icing, or taking over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medication.

Radiculopathy is a very different form of neck pain. Instead of involving soft tissue, it develops because of irritated or compressed nerve roots. These nerves split off from your spinal cord and pass between your vertebrae, traveling to other areas of your body to provide them with function and sensation. As a result, you develop unique symptoms when one of them becomes pinched, irritated, or damaged.

You can have radiculopathy anywhere along your spine. When it occurs in your neck, it’s often called cervical radiculopathy or, more commonly, a pinched nerve.

Signs of radiculopathy

Even though you have seven vertebrae in your neck, the lowest three (C5, C6, and C7) typically cause radiculopathy symptoms. The general signs of this condition include:

Because radiculopathy involves a nerve, these symptoms can occur anywhere along the compressed nerve. This unique characteristic also helps with identifying the vertebra involved in your symptoms.

For example, issues involving C5 usually cause symptoms in your shoulders, upper arms, and down into your thumb or index finger. However, those associated with C7 often affect your neck all the way to your hand and middle or little finger.

Causes of radiculopathy

Several things can lead to radiculopathy, but they all involve tissue changes around nerves in the area. That’s because your nerve roots have to pass through small bony spaces known as foramina when exiting your spinal canal. If these areas grow smaller, they can easily irritate or compress nerve roots.

Common causes of cervical radiculopathy include:

Cervical radiculopathy is also more common in men and people ages 50-54 because of its link to spinal degeneration. When younger people develop the condition, it’s usually due to injury or disc herniation.

Help for radiculopathy

Dr. Smith can diagnose cervical radiculopathy by performing a physical exam, requesting imaging tests, and doing nerve conduction studies. After reaching a diagnosis, he outlines a personalized treatment strategy based on the cause of your condition. Common treatments for radiculopathy include:

If conservative approaches don’t provide relief, Dr. Smith also offers several surgical solutions — including minimally invasive and robotic procedures — designed to repair the damage, reduce pain, and restore function.

You don’t have to let neck pain interfere with your life. Find relief at one of our convenient Brain and Spine Institute of New York and New Jersey locations by calling or booking an appointment online today.

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